Art, Naked

Ai Weiwei’s foreman looks remarkably similar to Ai himself, so much so that when people see him (the foreman, that is) there is the kind of communal, hushed stirring that happens around a possible celebrity sighting: Is that—? No, it couldn’t be…is it though? The disappointment when the truth is revealed: no, it’s not Ai Weiwei. The man in question turns out to be one of four of Ai’s employees who have traveled from China to the States on his behalf.

The men stick together–as people who speak the same language often do when they are in a foreign country–and spend their break smoking outside the museum under a cluster of trees. There is Mr. Xia, the foreman and Ai Weiwei-look-alike, who has a round face framed by a short buzz-cut and a scraggly beard. He wears the same blue work suit every day. Mr. Xu is a lanky man with a loose body and a head of long salt-and-pepper hair tied in a disheveled ponytail. Then there is Mr. Gao, a tall and slender man. He’s quiet but mighty; one minute, he’s softly singing underneath his breath, and the next he’s lifting up hundred-pound wooden pillars all by himself. And lastly, there is the woodworker, Cheng, the shortest of the bunch and of stocky build. He smiles frequently, says very little, and only nods his head when I greet him.

Every morning, I sit with these four men around a large table waiting for the day’s instructions. The museum staff sit across the room. Occasionally, someone will cross the space between the two tables to refill their mug (coffee for most of the museum staff while Ai’s guys opt for hot water for tea instead), but otherwise this border clearly demarcates the two groups of workers. This gulf between Ai Weiwei’s guys and the museum’s staff is one that I am asked to cross and inhabit. As a translator for the deinstallation of the exhibit, I have to decipher conversations between Ai’s team in Chinese and the museum staff in English. It is my first time working as a translator in a museum. I have to translate words I barely know in English: gantry crane, dolly, sawdust, forklift, Tyvek, insurance policy holder.

Also, I keep accidentally stepping on the art.

In my defense, the gallery is in disarray. There are tables laid out with paperwork, pencils (no pens in an art gallery!), blankets in various shades of blue, rolls of tape. Industrial-sized rolls of bubble wrap strewn on the ground next to wooden boxes and toolboxes, with their contents of nails and hammers and screwdrivers spilling out. Foam boards of various shapes and sizes are also laying on the ground, waiting to be packed in with the artwork. On the sides of the room, sections of the wallpaper–also designed by Ai–are peeled off. The monitors used to show video art are unplugged and its wires are dangling on the floor. Handheld mechanical drills, their once-bright yellow handles fading with age, are displayed next to ladders propped up haphazardly against the wall. Workman’s aprons are scattered over the one or two chairs. The usually pristine and minimalist art gallery is littered with these artifacts of industry and labor.

It was in this type of chaos that I accidentally backed into Tyre (2016), a marble sculpture in the shape of stacked tires. It is meant to evoke the flotation devices used by refugees trying to cross bodies of water. Tyre is a quiet piece. It sits in the corner of the gallery and doesn’t demand your attention. It is a piece you eventually meander towards. It makes you stand and ponder. When I look at this piece, I think about the concept of value: the value of marble, the value of tires, the value of human lives. Marble, a traditionally expensive and sought-after material, is expensive and tires, made of plastic, are obviously less so—but lives? What of lives? All exist uneasily combined within this one unit.

Mr. Xu sees me stumble into the piece and quickly, but not unkindly, steers me away. Thankfully, marble is also a strong force. It is hard, sturdy, and unforgiving. I learn to be more careful.

In the same gallery alongside Tyre is another exhibit that also portrays the theme of refugees, Stacked Porcelain Vases as a Pillar (2017). Six blue porcelain vases are stacked one on top of the other to form a pillar. The porcelain design, instead of the usual Chinoiserie patterns (dragons, pagodas, mountainscapes, vaguely oriental flowers, fanciful peacocks), are instead armed soldiers and tankers, barbed wire fences, boats filled with refugees in life vests battling a thunderstorm. Ai has used “traditional” techniques of a famous Chinese material and mode of artmaking to depict a modern-day global catastrophe. Stacked on top of each other, these vases constitute a pillar that rises more than ten feet into the air. The towering porcelain evokes a physical sense of precarity.

It turns out no one at the museum knows how to take Stacked Porcelain Vases as a Pillar apart. A good portion of the morning is spent coming up with a plan: Should we get a team on ladders and have them lift each vase down? Should we use a forklift instead? But will the vase be stable on the forklift by itself? In the end, it is decided that three people will lift each vase off the pillar and one person will hold onto the vase as the forklift descends and brings the vase to the ground.

The vases are screwed to a metal pillar on the inside and before the first case can be even removed, the screws have to be unhinged. Unscrewing the pillar takes a good amount of time and finesse. The moment that the first screw is out, the vases on the bottom start to wobble. When I see the wobble, I audibly gasp. I gasp like I am watching a horror movie and some alien has just emerged and is stalking some poor, unknowing human prey. I gasp so loudly one of the employees comes over to ask me if I’m all right.

I can only nod as I watch the team continue to lift the first vase off the pillar and gingerly drop it onto the claw of the forklift. Someone props up the vase with a bunch of blankets, so as to prevent any shifting or tilting when the forklift begins its descent. Slowly–ever slowly–the forklift begins to move and the vase comes down to earth. That vase is then carefully transferred to a table, also laden with blankets, where the registrars from both teams examine it from every angle to document any potential damage.

 It doesn’t help my nerves that in the background, bicycles are falling from the sky.

Forever Bicycles (2014) consists of hundreds of metallic bicycles stacked on top and alongside each other. The repetition of the same repeated shape over a vast amount of space creates a sense of movement, like an animation flipbook. It is a static monument that seems to be passing in a blur across your eyes. Forever Bicycles is perhaps the most visually stunning installation out of the whole exhibit. (The museum always opts to use photos of this piece for all its marketing materials.) To create Forever Bicycles, each bicycle and axle has to be screwed in place by hand. This means that come time for the deinstallation, men have to strap into harnesses and climb up to the ceiling to bring down each bicycle component, one-by-one. Loud clangs are not uncommon, followed by a vacant voice reassuring everyone that everything is ok, it was just a wheel that fell on the ground!

Things are also falling in the other rooms, bigger and louder things. In Through (2007-08), large wooden beams, pillars, and tables have been taken from destroyed Buddhist temples and connected to one another to form a continuous link. Ai has made the outside and inside meet: the logs are stacked against each other and have been pierced through the tables to create a quagmire of wood that takes up an entire room. You can walk through the angles and tresses created by these logs.

When it comes to deinstalling, the beams become obstacles. There is a snafu from the beginning: because of the logistical limitation of the room, the team will have to work entirely backwards. Instead of removing the first log, they will have to start from the last log they put in place. This means that the schematics of the installation are now entirely off.

The men walk around scratching their heads and pointing. They are trying to figure out what will happen when this log is removed and how its removal will impact other logs connected to it.

Ultimately though, it’s all guesswork. It’s not until the crane is in place and lifts the first log off the ground that we truly find out which pieces will be impacted by its removal. It is a landscape of towering beams, shifting and sliding and falling. Men run over to hold up and support logs buckling under the pressure of having to hold up their neighbor’s load. At one point, one of the employees rushes to get me out of the way of a beam’s landing.

Art on display exists in stasis. Things are perfectly and consciously placed. But when the art must be removed, it is as if the art fights back. I see multiple men, strong men, straining to hold up these wooden beams. The artwork works against us. The artwork–like entropy–wants to fall, wants to slouch, wants to fall apart.

There is a lot of yelling throughout the process of deinstalling Through, mostly between Mr. Xia (the guy who looks like Ai) and Cheng, the woodworker. Cheng has been brought on to handle the wooden pieces in the exhibit. As the only member of the team who has never worked in a museum setting, Cheng has difficulty understanding and viewing the wood as art and not just furniture. “He thinks because he worked with the wood that he has some special relationship with the installation,” Mr. Xia explains to me in Chinese. “He doesn’t understand that he relinquishes ownership when the wood is transformed from furniture to art.” Cheng often places his old, used rags on top of the wooden tables in Through, for which Xia will throw a sharp and loud reprimand his way. Cheng has spent his whole life surrounded by wood and building furniture. How do you tell a man who has built these pieces that they no longer belong to him? How do you enforce this type of alienation between a man and something he has created with his bare hands? How can you force someone to see differently?

Working on the deinstallation, all of us constantly are operating in this nebulous region where an object fluctuates between being just a thing versus being a piece of art. After all, many of the components of these art installations—nails, axles, pieces of wood—could be mistaken as ordinary objects. As more pieces are taken down, the gallery begins to look more like an unkempt antique store than it does an art museum. It seems sacrilegious to see the art splayed out in disassembled form like this. The art, it looks naked.


Throughout the process there haven’t been any significant hiccups, either in the disassembly process or in my translation tasks. But the whole team is tested when we disassemble Souvenir from Shanghai (2012). This installation consists of a Qing dynasty bed frame filled and surrounded by concrete bricks and rocks. Out of all the pieces, this one evokes the strongest visceral reaction. I imagine laying on that bed feeling the weight of the bricks on me. When I look at this piece, I feel as if I am drowning.

The bed frame is incredibly ornate. Curlicues, birds, peacocks, animals, dogs, hand-carved into the wood by an unknown artisanal woodworker, long gone. The concrete and brick that fill the bed cavity are the remains of Ai’s demolished studio in Shanghai that was razed down by the Chinese government in 2012. He has taken the materials that used to house his art and incorporated them as art.

To disassemble Souvenir from Shanghai, you must first remove the rubble on top. The workers stand on top of the bed and throw rocks off the edge into the crates designated “large brick pieces” and “small concrete pieces.” They work with speed and efficiency. It reminds me of a construction site: dust, masks, buckets. The men handling the bricks are rough; they throw the bricks from the top of the bed without reverence. “Please remind them to handle with care,” Mr. Xu tells me to translate. “Well, it’s rock. It’s not like it’s going to break,” the employee mutters under his breath.

Until someone accidentally drops a brick onto the wooden bed frame leaving a noticeable dent. This turns out to be a very big mistake. Ai Weiwei himself has to be contacted. It is like he is the Pope, an all-important, omnipresent figure no one directly interacts with but whose orders and directions affect us all. The verdict: Ai is displeased.

All the important people are called to convene, insurance people must be brought into the loop. Expectant eyes look at me. I am the conduit by which this fraught, legal conversation now has to take place. Haltingly, I try. As they’ve been disassembling Through, Cheng has been repairing little bits and pieces of damaged logs with sawdust and glue. Why can’t we do the same for the bed frame? Mr. Xia shakes his head. “Because one is natural wood and the other is an antique piece of furniture. Damage to the wooden logs is expected over time, gravity takes its toll. But repairing the wooden bed frame is different. It is art and you can’t add or change anything to an existing piece of art.”

I puzzle over this distinction. That Ai would make such a distinction between the bed frame (as art) and the logs (as not art) seemed strange when taken into the context of his larger body of work. This is, after all, an artist who has made a career out of defying traditional conceptions of art. This is a man who makes art out of Lego pieces. This is a man whose most famous art installation is one where he smashes and destroys antique Han vases. So why was a beam of log from a religious temple considered just wooden material while a Qing dynasty bed frame was considered art? The decision to value the furniture above the beams seemed to reify the rules of the art world that Ai so pointedly tries to dismantle.

Even for an artist like Ai –whose work explicitly challenges conceptions of art–it seems his approach is still fundamentally based on a conservative foundation of what art is. Simply put: the boundaries between art and objects are non-negotiable. This is not to say that Ai’s art doesn’t blur the boundaries between art and objects–the blurring of that particular boundary is, indeed, the point of his art. More importantly, the blurring of the boundary between art and object is only made possible through Ai’s own art. In Souvenir from Shanghai, the concrete and brick debris co-mingle with the antique bed frame because Ai made it so. However, once you remove the concrete and bricks from the bed and disassemble the art installation, you’ve removed the rubble from the context that made it art–and from the context that allowed it to be part of the “is it art?” discourse in the first place.

What power, I marveled. What a declaration of ego it is to be an artist who, with a stroke of his brush, can change the nature of these objects into art and back again.


One day, this boundary between art and not art is made comically literal. Mr. Xu instructs me to label which of the boxes contain art and which are filled with ordinary objects. With a chunky black Sharpie, I am told to write ART in big, bold letters on boxes that contain art (bicycle pieces, wooden fragments) and NOT ART on other boxes that contain extraneous items (tools and padding). Fulfilling this task fills me with glee. There is a perverse joy as I am bestowed with godlike powers to answer with such definitive ease that most ineffable of questions: Is this art? Yes! I say, as I slash a box with a permanent marker. Art! This is ART! This is NOT ART!

After the boxes of ART and NOT ART have been assembled, they are moved stowed into large, wooden crates for transportation. The crates sit underneath an ongoing exhibition in the lobby, Tomas Saraceno’s Cosmic Filaments. It consists of three prisms glommed together like soap bubbles. Various sides of the prism are glossy, others have a metallic sheen. The prisms are held together by strings that converge inside the prisms, creating an interior network that is connected to the exterior. When I look at Cosmic Filaments, questions begin to automatically percolate in my mind, as if the piece exhales these formulations to me: questions of interiority, exteriority, and scale. The prisms look otherworldly, like depictions of a galactic universe–and yet they also look like visual depictions of microscopic molecules or organic compounds found inside our body. Cosmic Filaments seems to have a gravitational pull over me, it lures me in. It has a sway and a power over me that none of these Ai Weiwei installations does.

When I look at Ai Weiwei’s art, I see loudness. Ai’s artwork befits his status: it is big and brash and takes up a lot of space. It takes up entire rooms and is meant to induce awe. But once the awe fades, what is left?

Precariously stacked porcelain vases, desecrated antique furniture, a sea of bicycles. Lumber strewn across the floor.

On the last day, I assist the museum staff with sweeping the gallery floors. In the gallery that housed Shanghai Souvenir, I find some small chunks of brick on the ground. I pick one up and feel the heft of its weight in my palm. I bring it back to Mr. Xia. What should we do with any pieces we find on the ground? I ask him. He waves his hand, it’s not worth reopening a crate. “It’s just rubble,” he says.


S.A. Yan is a writer based in northern California. Her writing has previously been published in The Nation, Right Hand Pointing, and The Belladonna Comedy.